BREAKFAST. Breakfast, the first meal of the day, can mean many things to many different people. The English term comes from a Middle English word meaning 'breaking the fast'. Any meal that breaks the overnight fast that occurs while we sleep is considered "breakfast."
Breakfast throughout History
From archaeological evidence at Neolithic sites we know that there was an early reliance on cereal grains; what people consume at breakfast, however, has changed considerably over time and place. Wild emmer and einkorn wheats and a variety of barley were first gathered and then cultivated in the Middle East around 7000 b.c.e. (McGee, p. 233). Maize (corn) was grown in South America and rice in Asia starting around 4500 b.c.e., and rye and oats were cultivated in Europe from about 400 b.c.e. Neolithic peoples used stone querns to grind the hulled grains, then boiled them to make a kind of porridge.
Roman soldiers woke up to a breakfast of pulmentus, a porridge similar to the Italian polenta, made from roasted spelt wheat or barley that was then pounded and cooked in a cauldron of water. On the march, they ate bucellatum, dried bread similar to Holland rusk (Renfrew, p. 22). People in the Middle East made and grilled flatbreads of all kinds, perhaps accompanied by green onions or another easily cultivated vegetable and a soft cheese, a tradition that carries through to the present time.
When other types of wheat were introduced throughout the Middle East and Europe, higher-rising breads could be baked. Only the wealthy could afford wheat bread because the cultivation of wheat required the most fertile lands. Oats and barley could grow in poorer soils and a colder, wetter climate and provided the basis for heavy breads that peasants ate. Barley was also used to make malt and thus to brew beer from Neolithic times onwards. Water was regarded as unsafe to drink from ancient times through the Renaissance, so beer was the beverage of choice for breakfast. People living in what is now Europe broke their fast with a mug of beer and an oat-cake, a heavy bread made from barley and oats, or a bowl of porridge.
In warmer climates, rice became a breakfast staple. In Hong Kong, chicken congee, or rice cooked in a rich chicken stock, has been eaten with tea for breakfast for centuries. Likewise in southern India, rice is cooked with fresh ginger, chilies, and spices and served with eggs cooked in ghee or clarified butter.
In South America, maize kernels were soaked in lime to remove the hulls and then ground into a moist masa to make corn tortillas—the flatbreads of South America. These are still served with eggs, salsa, refried beans, plantains, avocados, and spiced pumpkin seeds or pepitas and other accompaniments for breakfast.
By the end of the 1600s, breakfast throughout most of Europe and the American colonies was a simple affair similar to the current "continental breakfast" offered in hotels in America and Europe. Less affluent households still drank beer for breakfast with their bread or porridge, but wealthier households began to include coffee or tea. Bread and butter, a selection of cold meats, perhaps porridge on a cold day, and coffee, tea, or another hot beverage was the breakfast norm by the early 1800s. In 1821, English writer William Cobbett complained in Cottage Economy that "The drink, which has come to supply the place of beer, has, in general, been tea. It is notorious, that tea has no useful strength in it; that it contains nothing nutritious; that it, besides being food for nothing, has badness in it, because it is well-known to produce want of sleep in many cases, and in all cases, to shake and weaken the nerves." England imported 20,000 pounds of tea in 1700 and 20 million pounds by 1800.
Arabs in Ethiopia had been cultivating coffee beans and making the dark, rich beverage since 1000 c.e. Coffee traveled to Turkey, then, by the 1500s, to Venice as part of the spice trade, where it was discovered by the English. Enterprising planters smuggled coffee beans to create plantations in the East Indies and later in South America. By the mid-1650s, coffee was the main attraction at cafés, named after the French word for coffee, in London and Paris. Today, coffee and tea remain breakfast fixtures all over the world.
By Victorian times, when abundance was enjoyed by Americans as well as the British at the height of the British Empire, breakfast was a lavish affair, whether served at a table in a farm kitchen or in an elegant city dining room. Cookbooks from the period provide insight into the breakfast served by affluent households. In the 1861 Book of Household Management, Isabella Beeton suggested a daily breakfast buffet that included a cold joint of meat, game pies, broiled mackerel, sausages, bacon and eggs, muffins, toast, marmalade, butter, jam, coffee, and tea.
In the 1877 Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping, the anonymous American compilers suggested breakfast menus for every season. In spring, they recommended fried brook trout, eggs on toast, baked beans and Boston brown bread, rice waffles, coffee, tea, and milk. In summer, the menu included fresh Nutmeg melons, fried fish, Saratoga potatoes, and sliced tomatoes. The fall menu called for oatmeal mush, fried salt pork, corn oysters, baked potatoes, and stewed peaches. In winter, the recommendation was for pork tenderloin, fried apples, buckwheat cakes with syrup, and sliced oranges.
During the nineteenth century, cooks also made breakfast dishes that were a combination of cereals and meats. Scrapple, a blend of pork and cooked cornmeal mush, is sliced and fried for breakfast in Pennsylvania. In Cincinnati, breakfasters still love goetta (pronounced "get-uh"), a savory blend of cooked whole oats with pork and onions, also sliced and fried. At this same time, there was a movement against these lavish eating habits, which resulted in the birth of the breakfast cereals we are familiar with today. On 25 December 1865, Ellen White had a vision at her home in Battle Creek, Michigan. She saw the ailing members of her husband Elder James White's congregation returned to blooming health and was convinced that a better diet consisting of more whole grains and fiber was the missing component. And since Battle Creek was the national headquarters for the Seventh-Day Adventists, the Whites' religious affiliation, she wanted all Seventh-Day Adventists to be restored to health. She persuaded her husband to offer a medical scholarship to John Harvey Kellogg, who then set about studying nutrition in New York City.
As a student who wanted a healthier diet, Kellogg cooked for himself and knew how long it took to first soak and then cook whole or cracked grains. He wanted an easier way to eat a nutritious breakfast, and the idea of precooked cereals came to him. However, it took two years of trial and error before he introduced the first ready-made cereal—"Granola," as he called it—to the patients at the Seventh-Day Adventist health sanitarium in Battle Creek. Soon to follow were Grape-Nuts, so named because they were sweetened with dextrose or grape sugar and the product had a nutty flavor, in 1898; they were developed by Dr. Kellogg and his brother Will. Corn flakes flavored with malted barley debuted in 1902. Alexander P. Anderson of the Quaker Oats Company developed the technology for puffed cereals, and puffed rice was introduced to the American consumer at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. Today, 66 percent of Americans still eat cold cereal for breakfast (Perryman). Even those who skip breakfast still might drink a glass of orange juice, another breakfast staple.
Breakfast around the World
Americans also enjoy other types of breakfast foods, some more healthy than others. In addition to fruit juices, particularly orange juice, pancakes, biscuits, eggs, bacon, sausages, and other breakfast meats, Americans also consume hash brown potatoes and breakfast pastries such as coffee cakes, donuts, and muffins. About 7 percent of Americans enjoy a Southern-style breakfast with eggs, sausage, grits, and biscuits. On-the-go breakfasters—now about 68 percent of the population—might stop at a fast-food restaurant for a cup of coffee, a breakfast sandwich, a bagel, or a doughnut. Fast-food restaurants have expanded their breakfast offerings while the number of bagel emporiums and coffee shops has greatly increased to meet the growing needs of these breakfasters on the way to work or school. Health-conscious eaters favor breakfast cereal bars, plain bagels, yogurt, and herbal tea or fresh-squeezed carrot juice, and have prompted this segment of the prepared foods market to burgeon (Lach). About 32 percent of Americans currently eat toast for breakfast.
Unlike the sit-down family breakfast of the past, the early-twenty-first century American breakfast is eaten at different times before parents and their children leave for work and school. This trend also fuels the need for easy-to-eat breakfast items such as breakfast bars, yogurt, cereals, toaster pastries, and microwavable frozen breakfast entrees.
In England, the typical English breakfast or "full fryup" includes fruit juice, a bowl of cereal, eggs with fried streaky bacon or sausages, sometimes grilled tomatoes and mushrooms, perhaps a kipper or other smoked fish, fried bread or toast or scones, and marmalade. In France, a croissant or a baguette with fresh butter and a cup of café au lait (coffee with milk) is common. Italians enjoy a light breakfast of pastry or bread and butter with coffee, while the Germans, Swiss, Dutch, and Scandinavians prefer a breakfast of cold sliced meats and cheeses, bread and butter, jam, and perhaps a boiled egg. Dutch and Belgian breakfasters might enjoy a touch of chocolate—as a filling in a croissant or chocolate sprinkles known as hagel over buttered toast.
In other parts of the world, breakfast is equally simple. In India, it might mean flatbread with cardamom-scented tea or steamed dumplings with a spicy sauce and coconut chutney (Sahni, p. 104). Mexicans eat huevos rancheros, or scrambled eggs with chilies and salsa, or even menudo, braised tripe, and burritos. In Saudi Arabia, families eat eggs, baked beans, cheese, olives, and ma'soub, or pancakes with bananas, but are also including American cereals.
Breakfast as a Social Ritual
Apart from the necessity of breaking the fast, the first meal of the day can also function as an important social ritual. Retired businessmen and farmers, networking men and women in management, mothers of young children, or singles often meet at a designated restaurant for an early morning breakfast. Schools, churches, and other organizations offer pancake breakfasts as fundraisers. Tailgate breakfasts served from the back of a car or van feed fans at weekend football games; hunt breakfasts served buffet-style feed those about to saddle up.
The wedding breakfast, a more formal affair, brings together the wedding party and the families for an elegant first meal to start the couple's big day—or, often, their first day as a married couple on the day after the wedding. Less hearty foods, such as champagne, smoked salmon, shirred eggs, eggs Benedict, steamed asparagus, and Danish pastries would be on a wedding breakfast menu.
Brunch, a combination of breakfast and lunch served later in the morning, is often a relaxed social occasion, most often held on Sunday in private homes or restaurants. Savory bread puddings, egg casseroles, omelets, waffles, coffee cakes, and fruit compotes are typical brunch fare. Alcoholic drinks such as Bloody Marys (vodka with spiced tomato juice), Mimosas (champagne with orange juice), or screwdrivers (vodka with orange juice) might also be served.
The Best Way to Start the Day
No matter what is on the menu, research shows that breakfast is still a very important meal. In a 1998 study of schoolchildren published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, researchers found that children who eat breakfast perform better academically and also behave better. The children who ate breakfast functioned intellectually at almost a grade level higher than those who did not, and were less likely to fall asleep at their desks or disrupt class because of hunger. The same goes for adults. Eating breakfast improves the ability to concentrate, reduces the risk of heart disease, improves weight control, and increases strength and energy. Generally, health professionals recommend that we eat a healthy breakfast consisting of protein, whole grains, and fruits that totals about one-third of our daily caloric intake (Maynard).
See also Beeton, Isabella; Cereal Grains and Pseudo-Cereals; Cereals, Cold; Dinner; Fruit; Kellogg, John Harvey; Lunch; Vegetables; Vitamin C.
Beeton, Isabella. The Book of Household Management. London, 1861.
Black, Maggie. Food and Cooking in Medieval Britain: History and Recipes. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
Brears, Peter. Food and Cooking in 17th Century Britain: History and Recipes. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
Buckeye Cookery and Practical Housekeeping. Minneapolis, Minn.: Buckeye Publishing Company, 1877.
Lach, Jennifer. "What's for Breakfast?" American Demographics (May 1999).
Maynard, Cindy. "Start Your Day with a Breakfast Boost." Current Health 2, no. 26 (September 1999): 16.
McGee, Harold. On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. New York: Scribners, 1984.
Murphy, J. Michael, et al. "The Relationship of School Breakfast to Psychosocial and Academic Functioning: Cross-sectional and Longitudinal Observations in an Inner-City School Sample." Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine 152 (September 1998): 899–907.
Perryman, M. Ray. "Changes in the American Palate." Dallas Business Journal 25, 3 (31 August 2001): 55.
Renfrew, Jane. Food and Cooking in Roman Britain: History and Recipes. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
Sahni, Julie. Classic Indian Vegetarian Cooking. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1987.
Stead, Jennifer. Food and Cooking in 18th Century Britain: History and Recipes. London: Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England, 1985.
Judith M. Fertig
break·fast / ˈbrekfəst/ • n. a meal eaten in the morning, the first of the day: I often have toast for my breakfast. • v. [intr.] have this meal: she breakfasted on French toast and bacon. PHRASES: have (or eat) someone for breakfast inf. deal with or defeat someone with contemptuous ease.DERIVATIVES: break·fast·er n. break·fast·less adj.